The modern art museum hoping to send Indonesian art global

Updated 20th March 2018
"Melt," a 2008 triptych from Indonesian artist Entang Wiharso, who splits his time between Yogyakarta and New York.
Credit: Museum MACAN
The modern art museum hoping to send Indonesian art global
Written by Krithika Varagur, CNNJakarta
There's a Jakarta shopping mall called Gandaria City that houses sculptures by Yayoi Kusama, Lucian Freud and Fernando Botero. The strength of this "collection" encapsulates how, for a long time, there has been no real place to show modern art in the world's fourth most populous country.
But that changed last November when Indonesia's first-ever international modern art museum, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (or MACAN), opened in West Jakarta. Drawn entirely from the private collection of billionaire Haryanto Adikoesoemo, a chemicals and petroleum mogul, its catalog features works by most major Indonesian artists, alongside those of international heavyweights like Basquiat, Rauschenberg and Warhol.
"I'm interested in how works of art talk to each other," Adikoesoemo said in the gallery's in-house cafe, whose floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto Jakarta's congested cityscape.
Indonesia, a nation of over 17,000 islands, has a thriving artistic community: contemporary artists can be found working across its major cities, with countless more upholding traditional art forms like weaving and shadow puppetry. But despite initiatives like the Jakarta Biennale, the country's art scene has proven somewhat insular, in part due to its sparse gallery and museum infrastructure.
MACAN arose from Adikoesoemo's singular, decade-long vision of a world-class Indonesian museum that shows domestic and overseas art on the same walls.
"It's a platform for Indonesian artists to meet the world," he said, "and for world artists to be introduced to the Indonesian public."

A different offering

MACAN welcomed around 90,000 visitors the first three months after opening, according to museum officials. The museum currently occupies the mezzanine floor of a Jakarta high-rise, AKR Tower, though there are already plans to expand the space by a further 1,000 square meters (and an additional floor) next year.
About one-tenth of the nearly 800 works in Adikoesoemo's collection are currently on display, including an "Infinity Mirrored Room" by Yayoi Kusama and a Jeff Koons sculpture of the Incredible Hulk.
"Lanskap" (1962), an abstract expressionist painting by Inodneisian artist Srihadi Soedarsono that echoes the work of the mid-century American painter Mark Rothko. 
"Lanskap" (1962), an abstract expressionist painting by Inodneisian artist Srihadi Soedarsono that echoes the work of the mid-century American painter Mark Rothko.  Credit: Museum MACAN
"Haryanto's collection is the best in Indonesia," said FX Harsono, one of Indonesia's most prominent contemporary artists, known for his politically charged installations and for co-founding Indonesia's New Art Movement in 1975.
"Jakarta has a lot of art space but it's very commercial. Indonesian art institutions are controlled by the market. The collectors here usually want to collect for resale. Their standards are: (whatever will sell at) Sotheby's and Christie's. Haryanto is doing something really different and important by trying to create a conversation between works from the East and West."
A 2011 painting by FX Harsono entitled "Wipe Out #1."
A 2011 painting by FX Harsono entitled "Wipe Out #1." Credit: Museum MACAN
MACAN's inaugural exhibition, "Art Turns. World Turns," traces the development of Indonesian art over the last two centuries alongside its intersections with social history and the global art scene. "It's structured around Indonesia's place in the world," said Seeto.
The show teases out two schools of mid-century Indonesian art that reflect the international movements of their time -- social realism and abstract expressionism, centered, respectively, in the cities of Yogyakarta and Bandung.
A 1962 color block oil painting by the Bandung artist Srihadi Soedarsono is shown next to an iconic abstract painting by Mark Rothko from a year earlier. The resemblance illustrates just how much -- and for how long -- Indonesian artists have been plugged into international movements, lending a sense of revelation to the exhibition.

Engaging young audiences

Due to its immediate prominence in the Indonesian art world, MACAN has adopted a democratic sensibility. It is, for instance, leading a month-long grassroots initiative to create more Wikipedia pages on Indonesian art history.
The museum is occasionally open after hours for events, as well as to community groups: classrooms of Jakarta students are invited into its children's art space every month. ("Although, I used to cry when teachers asked me to draw in art class," joked Adikoesoemo.) Gallery officials hope to engage with a younger generation of new art lovers.
Left: "LF" (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the first contemporary paintings that Adikoesoemo bought after the Asian Financial Crisis.
Left: "LF" (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the first contemporary paintings that Adikoesoemo bought after the Asian Financial Crisis. Credit: Museum MACAN
"It's exciting to work here because there aren't (the) norms of museum-going that you might have in the West," said Seeto, who moved to Jakarta from Brisbane to work for MACAN. "There is no sense of obligation... our visitors are fairly young, middle-class, multi-ethnic and multi-religious."
Both Adikoesoemo and Seeto feel strongly about the museum's role in building young Indonesians' historical consciousness.
"The Dutch colonized us because we were disunited," said Adikoesoemo plainly. "We want young people to understand that independence is hard won."
Adikoesoemo began collecting art in the 1980s, starting with Indonesian painters like Hendra Gunawan, whose expressionist works can be found in the museum today. He went on to acquire paintings by impressionists and modernists like Braque and Chagall, but was forced to sell most of them off to keep his family business afloat after the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
"When I decided to get back into collecting, I was already priced out of those artists whose work I had just recently sold!" he recalled. "So I looked to contemporary art. And that turned out to be more interesting anyway. I like contemporary art because, well, it's happening now."
One of the first paintings he acquired after the financial crash was Basquiat's "LF" in 2003.
"No one in Indonesia knew about him," Adikoesoemo said. "But I could see his painting wasn't just a painting -- it was also the story of life in America in the 1980s."

Art and tolerance

Having declared independence in 1945, Indonesia is a relatively young nation. It has periodically been wracked with sectarian tensions, including the recent resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in national politics. Adikoesoemo has somewhat utopian ideas about the role of art in a multiethnic society.
"Art makes you more creative, calm and tolerant," he said. "Our country needs that now."
The current exhibition explodes with energy in its last section, evocatively dubbed "Global Soup." It shows art made after 1998, when the Suharto dictatorship fell and ushered in a new democratic era in Indonesia. But its scope is transnational, highlighting the work of overseas artists like Ai Wei Wei and Wang Guangyi.
The backdrop to MACAN's children's art space, designed by artist Entang Wiharso.
The backdrop to MACAN's children's art space, designed by artist Entang Wiharso. Credit: Museum MACAN
"MACAN is very exciting, because finally we have a platform that is more global, and because (the museum is) collecting and showing important artists," said Entang Wiharso, a multidisciplinary Indonesian artist who was commissioned by the museum to create a sculptural backdrop for its children's art space. "Usually Indonesian collectors are just about Indonesian art. But for me, art is borderless."
The gallery's collection is still growing and the exhibitions are set to briskly rotate, offering a chance to address the inaugural show's shortcomings -- like the fact that only three female artists are included. Seeto acknowledged the gender gap, saying that we should "watch this space" for better representation in the future. But already, Adikoesoemo's ten-year crusade has borne impressive fruit. There are often long lines to enter the museum, even on weekdays.
"The most important thing right now is that people come and look," said Adikoesoemo. "Growing up, I remember we would go to malls because there was nothing to do and nowhere to go. I hope we can attract people here instead. That's how we will build this country's artistic ecosystem."